Women behind Helping El Cajon Families
Cheri Cooper Robertson and Tracey Good Edwards of Helping El Cajon Refugees. Photo by Mimi Pollack

The influx of refugees from Afghanistan has prompted different groups of San Diego women to band together to help the men, women and children fleeing the Taliban begin a new life in America.

Those helping include both individuals like Mary Danaher of Coronado and organizations like Welcome Home and Helping El Cajon Refugees.

Laurie Spiegler is the co-founder and co-chair Welcome Home, which assists refugees by giving them “micro grants” to pay for education and job training. In addition, they help refugees who had careers in their countries transition to related jobs here, such as a pharmacy technician position for a pharmacist from Afghanistan.

Welcome Home works with other nonprofits to gather and fill backpacks for Afghan children living at various extended-stay hotels so they feel welcome and are ready to start school in America. They also coordinate with school districts to have buses meet the children.

Jennifer Einbinder is in charge of collecting, sorting, and storing the donations that come into Welcome Home. If one of the families has a need for clothes, shampoo, or a teapot, Einbinder can provide that.  

Two other local women who are helping Afghan refugees are Cheri Cooper Robertson and Tracey Good Edwards, both of whom volunteer with Helping El Cajon Refugees. This large group works with resettlement agencies like Jewish Family Service of San Diego and the International Rescue Committee.

In partnership with the Second Families organization, the El Cajon group provides furniture for apartments, clothing, shoes, toiletries, filled backpacks for the children, and food to help refugees. They make the refugees feel welcome. They try to be culturally sensitive to their needs. 

The group is organized with “leads” for different areas of need.  For example, Edwards is the food lead and Robertson is the blanket lead.

Edwards got involved with refugees through her book club, whose members wanted find some way to help in their community and sponsored a refugee family with ten children. The family’s needs were all basic items that Edwards took for granted. So she decided to get more involved.

As food lead, she has learned to fine tune an exotic grocery list and purchase food at local Middle Eastern stores as well as big box outlets. Her kindness and warmth have been much appreciated by the families and other volunteers.

Robertson got involved with in December 2020. At the time, her 94-year-old father was living with her and she felt that collecting and storing needed supplies was something she could do at home and still be useful to others. After her father passed away, she was asked to become the El Cajon group’s blanket lead.

She said she wants to follow her parents’ example of helping those in need and has learned that “better than nothing” is not good enough. The El Cajon group makes a point of only accepting new or like-new items. And they ensure that everything is clean.

Among the individuals helping Afghan refugees is Mary Danaher, who took in Sayed Ahmad Sadat, an Afghan journalist who assisted women in his country and spoke out against the Taliban. Danaher met him eight years ago when he was exploring film festivals and grants online as he worked on a documentary about children in Afghanistan. At the time, Danaher was the president and CEO of the Coronado Film Festival.

Sadat wrote to her and they began an online conversation that ranged from religion and literature to film, family and the history of his country. Danaher taught him how to write grant proposals, and how to network to find mentors.

A true friendship emerged as they got to know each other and their families better. Danaher recalls a Whatsapp call with Sadat and his sister late at night when their neighborhood was under fire from the Taliban. She wanted them to hang up and hide, but he asked her to stay on the line and she realized that their conversation was a lifeline out of the madness and danger.

Sadat fled from Afghanistan in August, and during his long journey he constantly texted Danaher to let her know he was okay. She felt great relief when he finally landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

He arrived in San Diego in December and has been living in a casita in the back of Danaher’s home. She views him as her Afghan grandson and has been teaching him about life in America, from washing dishes and doing laundry to starting a career.

Danaher is the grandchild of Irish immigrants who arrived in this country with nothing. They were poor, uneducated, and struggled. They lost two daughters to whooping cough and the flu epidemic. But their two surviving sons went on to receive Ph.D. degrees and have successful lives.

She feels that her grandparents inspired them all.  She got an MBA , attended Harvard Law School and had a successful business career. She was living her grandparents’ dream and never forgot that. 

Danaher feels that helping Sadat is a way of honoring her grandparents. In fact, all of the San Diego women have shown great compassion and heart in helping Afghan refugees learn how welcoming this land of immigrants can be.